Vietnamese choreographer Dam Van Huynh talks about his new work In Realness

Originally from Southern Vietnam, Dam Van Huynh is a UK/Hong Kong based dancer and choreographer. After the Vietnam War, Dam fled, as a child refugee, with his family and settled in the USA, where he was raised. Founding his dance company, Van Huynh Company, in 2008, he went on to create works which have toured internationally including commissions from National Dance Company of Mexico (CEPRODAC), Unlock Dancing Plaza (Hong Kong), British Museum, Fóramen M. Ballet (Mexico). 

His new work, In Realness, is a product of this 14-year journey and brings together Van Huynh’s personal history whilst diving fearlessly into the choreographer’s experience with his queerness. We caught up with him to find out more about the work.

Grace Nicol: In Realness is your new project, can you tell us a bit about it?

Dam Van Huynh: The solo is a collection of sounds, artists, texts, writers, and activists who have inspired me to comment on the inequalities that impact our society. The work uses a physical movement language and vocal expressionism along with visual and performance art, giving the audience a gripping experience that carves the journey from provocation towards a sense of elation, and an embodiment of pride.

It is a political work which adopts the notion of collective activism as a form of collective care. I wanted to bring together multiple singular voices of artists from diverse backgrounds, along with my own, to create a body of resistance against oppressive norms and behaviours and to amplify our resilience. As a queer Vietnamese artist, I began the work commenting on gender politics and sexuality but as the work developed it became a larger symbol for inequality experienced by many other groups. I reflected further upon this with the understanding that gathering voices through the piece is to acknowledge the importance of strength in unity when faced with inequality.

Grace: It is clear from what you are saying that this work is personal to you but that it is also a fertile ground for solidarity, inviting audiences in, to raise our voices together. What do you hope to achieve with the work?

Dam: The work aims to explore relevant and current social pressures within our society. Therefore, I feel, it has the capacity to speak to members of society at all levels regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, social and economic status. For this solo, I felt it was important for myself as a dance-maker to reflect our current times, our social imbalance and how this is impacting the fabric of our communities.

As a Vietnamese artist who is a former child refugee from the Vietnam War, my lived experience with prejudices and racism is a continual reality which impacts my development as a person and as a dance-maker. I have spent most of my childhood and a good chunk of my young adult life ashamed of my heritage and my sexuality because of certain preconceived notions of what I should be, how I should act, speak, what I can say or not say in order to be accepted. The work for me is a way to empower myself, to unapologetically speak up against the inequalities faced as a global majority artist living in the West. I hope by doing so and by collectively bringing forward the voices of other artists, activists, and makers, it may inspire those who are facing similar challenges and remind them they are not alone.

Grace: I think that is a powerful sentiment. You are also known for connecting with some amazing artists, having collaborated particularly with a wide range of composers (such as Elaine Mitchener, Martyna Poznanska, David Toop and many more). Who are the other artists that you are working with on the project? How is it to collaborate across artforms?

Dam: The solo performer for this work is Tommaso Petrolo, who is a queer dance artist based in London. Tommaso and I are long-term collaborators. Through the work I have also engaged with costume designer Emma Lyth, sound engineer Michael Picknett and Hong Kong based composer, Ian Tang. Throughout the process of making the solo there were many discussions about artists we admire as well as artists who continually mark our society through their brave acts of defiance.

We sourced work and comments from Pussy Riot, Walt Whitman, Audre Lorde, Alok Vaid-Menon (ALOK), Henry David Thoreau. For this work, I wanted to connect with different art forms in order to find new perspectives. Through In Realness, I dissect and question the voice, not simply as words uttered but instead as sounds shaped, heard, evaluated, and then collided together to form sense and (non)sense furthering an insistence on freedom of form and more importantly freedom of the self.

You can see within the work, sound, voice, and noise are adopted as strong subjects alongside my movement investigation. For the better part of a decade, I have been stretching my research across contemporary new music, sound art, voice and vocal extension, which has heavily influenced my dance making practice. My long-term collaborator vocal and movement artist Elaine Mitchener and I have developed numerous works together in which we dissect and push the voice, sound and movement to the extreme as a way to extend our practice across genres but equally to enhance our voices in making works that play an important role in the fight for equality. Some noted works that we have developed together are: The Then + The Now = Now Time (commissioned by MaerzMusik in 2019 – Germany, with a London Premiere at Wigmore Hall in 2022), On Being Human As Praxis (Commissioned by Donaueschinger Musiktage 2020, Germany), Of Leonardo da Vinci (commissioned by Ultima Festival in 2015, Sweden, with a London Premiere at Southbank Centre in 2018) and more.

Grace: I think it’s super interesting that you are drawing upon the voices of people who are in the work as well as wider voices to inform what you are creating. Why was it important for you to create this project in the current context?

Dam: I would describe my work as an implicit and ongoing attempt to synthesise the most dynamic and revolutionary facets of the dual aspects of my Vietnamese heritage and Western influences. I see these aspects, although diverse, as harmoniously informing my personal and creative expression. For the past 10 years, I have begun a process of rediscovery of myself, my Vietnamese heritage, and my sexuality. This for me has become a form of therapeutic awakening to embrace with pride the multifaceted characters that have shaped my experience as a displaced refugee from the Vietnam war. I feel as if this has allowed me to arrive at a more honest approach to my art making. Through my work, I oppose stereotypes of Asian politics as being quiet and internal. With the current Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo movements and the repeated denial of equal human rights of the LGBTQ+ community, I felt I could not stay silent.

Desmond Tutu said, ‘if you are neutral in the face of injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor’. Remembering such words lifts us out of silence and encourages collective activism and collective care.

Grace: I think this is a really poignant quote and particularly interesting, to bring in some context here, as I am speaking to you online as you are currently stuck in Hong Kong because of the pandemic regulations. How has this impacted the work and your creation process?

Dam: The entirety of the work was made via zoom, emails, and WhatsApp in an effort to find creative, alternative ways towards the making process in spite of all the challenges resulting from the pandemic. This was a relentless approach which I feel demonstrates the resilience and drive of artists regardless of the circumstances. The solo was developed through a conceptual making process I call ‘junkyard art’: a collage of quotations, movement, sound art, performance art drawn together to form new perspectives and dynamics, allowing me the ability to shift people’s attention, trying to let people change the way they look and experience the work(s).

Grace: That does sound like a challenge, but I am very glad that it seems to have been fruitful. And just to finish, is there anything else you want us to know?

Dam: The crucial aspect for the solo is the embracing of the ideology: collective activism as a form of collective care. This ideology for me as an artist fortifies the sense of hope and an acknowledgement that our communities can narrate and re-narrate a more inclusive future. The solo for me is also a celebration of bravery, courage and pride. The bringing together of such artists, their work, their raised voices within our society, is a form of care. I pay tribute to these artists for their dedication to speak for those who have no voice, to share with us how a defiant act can shift our perception and inspire us to continue the conversation. To speak about oppression and inequality is to face head on the issues that impact our communities; not to simply dwell, but rather a reminder that we all have a duty to be proactive in our awareness of its presence.

This work is supported by Centre 151 the Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (VLC) and Rich Mix. For more information please click here.

Link to interview